Even in Gund Arena, even in January, with the Cavaliers possessing one of the coldest tickets in town, there's something like a buzz 45 minutes before game time.
Fans trickling in hear a new-age jazz riff spilling out from speakers and the first beckoning of beer vendors. TV broadcasters pattycake foundation on their faces, while newspaper and radio slobs pack the press room to gorge on cod filets, chicken parmigiana, and hot dogs. The Cavs and Boston Celtics, still wearing practice jerseys, warm up on opposite ends of the court, flicking jump shots and flashing smiles. The sheen of the hardwood, the brightness of the lights, the good vibe going on -- it's not quite Showtime in L.A., but on a cold night in Cleveland, it'll do.
Most NBA coaches treat pregame shootarounds as a routine banality, something endured more than savored. For Cavs coach John Lucas, it's family time. Clad in sweat pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt, he plays one-on-one with his youngest son, Jai, a Cavs ballboy. The kid gives up a foot to Dad, but still torches him, nailing an 18-foot jumper followed by a rainbow layup. Lucas laughs, his easy manner belying the fact that his team enters this night on an 11-game losing skid.
By tipoff, Lucas has swapped his smile for a scowl and the sweats for a pinstriped suit. He never sits, preferring to whirl up and down the sideline, windmilling his arms as he hollers out plays, bickers with officials, and slaps players' backs as they sub out of the game. The Cavs stay close on the strength of rebounds and grit, hovering within three points late in the first half. Then a mistake causes Lucas to unleash a furious silence on his squad.
Boston's Antoine Walker shoots and misses a free throw. Cavs point guard Andre Miller, caught looking back toward the bench, fails to box out Walker; so do big men Michael Doleac and Chris Mihm. The lapse allows Walker to tap-dance down the lane, grab his own rebound, and score an easy deuce.
Lucas orders a timeout. As his players cluster around him, he spikes his plastic clipboard on the court. The board shatters, its impact echoing through the half-empty arena, and Lucas lights into the team -- with his eyes. In succession he fixes Doleac, Mihm, and Miller with a glare hot enough to melt copper. It's a charged moment, the coach's anger made loud and clear without a word spoken. Game stories the next day all mention the episode.
But it's later in the game, with the Celtics up by eight points and assured of a win, that a subtler silence grips Lucas.
He calls a timeout with 45 seconds left, and to a man, the Cavs' players and coaches slouch, the certainty of a 12th straight loss deflating their posture. Lucas, who chatters nonstop while diagramming plays during most timeouts, stares downward, saying nothing. He grinds the heel of his right hand into his right eye and rubs his bald pate. A new clipboard dangles uselessly in his hand -- any chance of drawing up a win is past.
He manages to reanimate after a half-minute, scratching out a final play in red marker. But he keeps his voice low, realizing there's no need to give his players an earful -- no need to smash another clipboard. They have sweated, strained, worked their butts off . . . and lost again.
"I'm so competitive," says the former point guard, who played 14 years in the NBA. "I don't want to beat them up, I don't want to lose them, so I got to stay calm. I have to understand when enough is enough."
Enough being enough because, as coaches and players admit, the Cavs are not good. They're almost always hard-working and sometimes entertaining, but in the end offer little more than an excuse for fans to come out to see other teams. Better teams. Teams playing for this season, not next season or the season after that.
Lucas knew as much when the Cavs named him the 13th coach in franchise history last June. Other clubs -- Detroit and Portland among them -- contacted him about their head coaching vacancies. He instead chose Cleveland, knowing how wide the chasm has grown between town and team, knowing there would be many nights like tonight. Knowing, in short, exactly what the hell he got himself into.
"We have a big job here, we have a long way to go to get better," he says in his typically frayed rasp. "But we're going to be taken seriously around here." Then the 48-year-old Lucas cocks his head and grins, and what he says next goes for coach and team alike.
"Ain't nothin' like a comeback."
In 1989, when Michael Jordan drained The Shot at Richfield Coliseum to chase Cleveland from the playoffs, fans stood saucer-eyed and dumbstruck. In January, when he hit a last-second hoop to beat the Cavs, cheers boomed through the Gund for a full minute. If anyone needed evidence how far the franchise has fallen in recent years, the proof was deafening.
Jordan's heroics capped a gruesome January for the Cavs, who went 2-13 during a month-long swoon. The team, 20-35 at the start of this week, lingers near the bottom of the NBA "power rankings" charted by sports magazines and online publications. "Looking like the Cadavers of early 1980s fame," Basketball News recently jabbed. "Going nowhere and in no particular hurry to get there," sniped ESPN.com.
Critics rapped the Cavs last season for quitting on head coach Randy Wittman, whose two-year reign collapsed under blowout losses, bad karma, and a record of 62-102. This season, the team has kept fighting -- and losing, which may be more dispiriting, says CNNSI.com basketball analyst Kevin Loughery, a former NBA head coach.
"They play really, really well and still can't win. That's when it's hard to take. You're doing everything you can, and you still can't win."
The problem is apparent: The Cavs lack talent like Arby's lacks ambiance. Miller is the team's lone bright spot, the league's leader in assists and a probable All-Star, if he played for a team that had seen .500 more recently than opening night. Seven-foot-three center Zydrunas Ilgauskas brings a potent offensive game to the court. He also brings seven screws in his surgically welded left foot, limiting him to 24 minutes a game.
Beyond them lies a roster of journeymen, erratic up-and-comers, and go-to guys who would be reserves on most playoff-bound squads.
Veteran guards Bimbo Coles and Brian Stith don't have the legs to match their brains; the opposite holds true for youngsters Jumaine Jones and Ricky Davis. Despite healthy feet, Doleac and Mihm move no better than Ilgauskas, while forward Brian Skinner's shooting touch suggests he has screws in his hands. Scorers Wesley Person and Lamond Murray can do little else, and too often even that skill eludes them.
Season-long back spasms sidelined forward Tyrone Hill until two weeks ago and might as well afflict seldom-used guard Trajan Langdon. The same invisibility plagues rookies DeSagana Diop and Jeff Trepagnier, who most nights log as many minutes as team owner Gordon Gund.
Add to that the departures of Matt Harpring and Clarence Weatherspoon before the season, and NBA observers say Lucas deserves Coach of the Year consideration for posting any victories.
"He's done a pretty good job -- seriously," says David DuPree, who covers the league for USA Today. "With only two good players, and one who can only play 20 minutes a game, I don't think there's anyone in the league who could have got one more win out of that team."
Or who could prevent them from restaging the Wittman Mutiny.
"You can see John getting a little frustrated, a little tired," says former NBA head coach Matt Guokas, now a Cavs broadcaster on Fox Sports Net Ohio. "But he's pushing through that, and that carries through to the players. They don't see him down, and that goes a long way to keeping their spirits up."
Twenty minutes after the Celtics game, most of the Cavs have cleared out of the locker room -- further evidence of the professional athlete credo that talking to reporters only makes a bad day worse. In the middle of the room stands a canvas laundry hamper. Damp shower towels lobbed by the players lie on the floor next to it. More missed shots.
Stith, 31, and Coles, 33, linger by their lockers, two old-timers willing to meet the press. Stith, signed as a free agent last summer, has played his best game as a Cav tonight, dropping a season-high 20 points on his former team. He indulges the knot of reporters who surround his locker, thrusting tape recorders and microphones at him as they joust for sound bites.
After they depart, he explains why one of the league's worst teams thinks it plays for one of its best coaches. "As a player, you want someone who's willing to go in the foxhole with you. He'll do that. He's committed to every last person on the roster."
"We definitely still believe in him," Coles adds. "It shows -- we're still playing hard. Guys are not going to give up. He believes in us; we believe in him."
Headstones etched with the epitaph "But They Believed in Me!" litter the graveyard of NBA coaches. Belief fades; a championship ring gleams forever.
"It's the old saying: Coaches are judged by their record," says ESPN analyst Jack Ramsay, whose Hall of Fame coaching career took him to Philadelphia, Buffalo, Portland, and Indiana. "The players saying they really like a coach, that's good. But coaches must have players. They must have wins."
Judged on wins alone, Lucas's coaching career before joining the Cavs traced a trajectory similar to that of the Nasdaq. He started out soaring, then plummeted hard.
In 1992, Lucas, then owner and coach of the Miami Tropics of the United States Basketball League, joined San Antonio as an assistant coach. Twenty games into the season, with the team a lifeless 9-11, management axed coach Jerry Tarkanian and promoted Lucas. Two years removed from his playing days, he made his bosses look good and the team look better. The Spurs posted a 94-49 record over the next two seasons and advanced to the playoffs both years.
After the Spurs were sold in 1994, Lucas left for Philadelphia, where he became coach, general manager, and vice president of operations of the struggling Sixers. He also became a failure. His teams went a combined 42-122 the next two years, hampered by a thin roster and his own low-yield trades. New owners took over the franchise in 1996 and, in a form of Chinese water torture, stripped him of his titles one by one over a week's time.
Lucas spent almost two years away from basketball, followed by three years as an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets. Yet despite his modest 136-171 record before this season, by last spring he found himself on the NBA's short list of head coaching candidates. The reason for teams' interest was the same one that led the Spurs and Sixers to hire him, and why the Cavs play hard for him. Lucas believes in people; they believe in him.
Lucas's belief springs from the oft-told story of his recovery from drug and alcohol addictions during his playing days. Much has been written about his survival, including by Lucas himself in a 1994 autobiography. The short version: His years-long cocaine habit gutted the potential he flaunted as an All-American at Maryland in the mid-'70s. His problems led to a nomadic pro career -- six teams in 14 seasons -- and ultimately to rehab in 1986. He retired four years later and founded John Lucas Enterprises, a Houston-based company that runs treatment programs.
In the lexicon of the clean and sober, his bottoming out gave seed to bottomless faith. He snorted, freebased, and binged away much of his talent, yet clawed his way back. Now nothing cows him, whether it's solving a player's personal problems or a team's 12-game losing streak.
"The first time I coached was when I coached myself in recovery," he says. "The way I look at it, I'm in the business of helping people and making a difference. In this business, I understand it's a straight-line, bottom-line, wins-and-losses deal. But sometimes you win even when you don't win."
If that sounds vaguely 12-steppish, his players buy into it -- as does the Cavs front office.
"With having a young team and trying to rebuild," says General Manager Jim Paxson, "we wanted someone who would keep things positive. John has a lot of enthusiasm, and players respond to that."
Yet, ironically, Lucas's return to the head coaching ranks after five years may have hinged on the tempering of his conviction that anyone can be saved. Earlier in his career, his evangelism led him to gamble on talented players with blemished pasts. In San Antonio, he traded for Dennis Rodman, who by then had discovered his love for cross-dressing, hair dye, Madonna, technical fouls, and skipping practice. Lucas controlled him, if barely, and the Spurs won enough for Rodman's antics to be described as colorful instead of infantile.
But in Philly, without the salve of winning, Lucas's methods rubbed fans raw. After he added several chronically troubled veterans to the roster, including Richard Dumas and Vernon Maxwell, a local paper awarded him "The Betty Ford Center Detox Diploma."
"When he first got to Philadelphia, he was trying to help everybody out of the goodness of his heart," says Sixers executive Tony DiLeo, who worked as Lucas's director of scouting.
The Cavs roster remains free of problem children. "I don't have bad guys," Lucas says. "They're great personalities."
His only headache -- and it's a mild one, compared to the Rodman migraine -- might be Ricky Davis, the high-flying forward whose mouth runs almost as much as his coach's. Earlier in the season, Davis riled Jordan by trash-talking during a Cavs win over Washington; the next time the teams played, Jordan scored 40, citing Davis as motivation. With the score at 99-67 during a recent win over Minnesota, Davis flapped his arms for more crowd noise as he stepped to the free-throw line for the "Chalupa Shot" -- fans get a free one at Taco Bell anytime the Cavs score over 100 points.
A frowning Lucas spun around to his assistant coaches. "Why the fuck does he do this?"
He took a more measured tone after the game, saying, "I love Ricky's enthusiasm." But he's openly criticized Davis on several occasions -- a sign that the coach, once mocked as a courtside Father Flanagan, has learned to gauge where tolerance ends and self-preservation begins.
"Earlier in his career," says USA Today's DuPree, "he might not have come down on guys. He'll still always find something good about them, but he won't look past their mistakes."
Consider it one of many lessons learned during his three years with hapless Denver -- the NBA's version of exile. It was there that Lucas, without the burden of being head coach, cultivated a reputation as more than a patron of hopeless souls. He became an X's-and-O's wonk, running timeouts and drawing up plays, filling in for head coach Dan Issel if he got tossed from a game or took ill. He also honed his tough-love coaching style.
"He's pretty much straight up with you," says Boston guard and ex-Nugget Eric Williams. "If you're doing something wrong, John Lucas is going to tell you you're doing something wrong. And if you don't listen, you're going to sit."
Thanks to the vacuum created by Issel, an aloof sort who maintained an Oz-like distance from his squad, Lucas held unusual influence for an assistant coach. He acted as the de facto liaison between Issel and the players, becoming for many of them the best part about toiling in Denver. Says Washington forward Popeye Jones, another former Nugget: "It was a joy to be around John. He definitely understands the game of basketball, but he also has so much enthusiasm for people."
By last spring, Lucas's image had again been rehabbed. The Detroit Pistons called about their coaching vacancy. So did Portland, a talent-laden team with a roster full of head cases. Yet a meeting with Trailblazers brass left Lucas ambivalent. "Career-wise, that's the safe move. But you're really just a caretaker -- it's already been built. I wanted to do something where I could turn an organization around."
As if on cue, Lucas heard from Paxson. Here was someone with a team in need of a turnaround -- and someone who shared Lucas's philosophy on how to do it. "My feeling was, you had to tear it down before you could build it up right away," Paxson says.
A few meetings and handshakes later, Lucas signed a three-year, $6.5 million contract. "I'm a little bit different than your conventional coach, but I want to win, I want to create excitement," Lucas said at a press conference last June. "If I can't get it done, I'll move on, but you don't understand the passion I have for this."
A Cavs practice at the Gund harbors an intensity that belies their .360 winning percentage. Split into three squads of five that rotate on offense and defense, they run the floor hard, banging bodies and crashing the boards. The arena echoes with sneaker squeaks, grunts, and basketball thumps, punctuated by the occasional "Woooo!" when someone drills a three-pointer.
Lucas strolls up and down the floor, watching, exhorting, needling.
"When you got the shot," he says to Miller, "shoot it!"
"Go get the damn rebound, Chris!"
"Skinner, you gotta be a man!" Lucas bellows after the forward gets stripped on his way to the hoop. Slipping a ball under his shirt near his upper arm, Lucas creates an inflated biceps. "You gotta have muscles like this!" Then, slipping the ball down to his stomach, he adds, "Not like this!"
Forget about wins and losses or sagging attendance. "I love the art of coaching," Lucas says. "I love the game."
Last summer, Lucas held his first practice at 6 a.m. on the premise that "if basketball is the most important thing in your life, you should start the day off with basketball." Yet while he wanted to signal who's in charge, he likewise sought to tap the trust of a team shell-shocked from losing.
"I told them there's one boss in between the lines -- that's me," he says. "But I also had a team that was scared to talk. I said, 'If I cuss you, you can cuss me. Just know when the coach is talking.'"
Lucas's arrival revived the games of Person and Murray, who were shackled in Wittman's plodding system. Murray, knocked as an underachiever since he entered the league in 1994, is averaging a career-best 17 points a game. Person, meanwhile, has regained the long-range shooting touch he displayed before Wittman showed up in 1999 -- along with his love of the game.
"[Lucas is] just always saying, 'I got your back. You get out there and play, and let me handle whatever else goes on,'" Person says. "He's done a good job of keeping us focused on basketball."
Ilgauskas, beset by injuries during his five years with the Cavs, says Lucas called him soon after becoming coach to let him know he remains crucial to the team's future. That sort of hands-on approach has given a needed jolt to a team that had gone comatose by last season's end. "Every time you run into him, he gives you a little bit of energy," Ilgauskas says. "He works you hard, but he cares about you."
But it is Miller, the third-year point guard, who shows the greatest benefit of Lucas's presence. The coach, who refers to the Cavs as "Andre's team," bird-dogs the 25-year-old Miller in practice, talking strategy with him, walking through offensive plays. The old point guard will wrap an arm around his protégé and rasp in his ear: You're the leader. Show it. Give us an identity.
"I love Andre like my son," Lucas says. "I like building something, and he's someone to build around. I've been hard on him, but he hasn't said one word, because he knows what we're trying to do."
Miller, soft-spoken and articulate, offers only praise for his mentor. "Everybody has confidence in him. He's done all he can in terms of preparing us. There's nothing else the coach can do -- he's on the sidelines."
The bond between Lucas and the Cavs flourishes without the Zen mysticism practiced by L.A. coach Phil Jackson or the love-hate mind games favored by Philly's Larry Brown. Lucas simply talks the talk of young professional athletes -- and listens to them. Twice a month, he meets with players to "clear the air," as he puts it, to reassure them he realizes that NBA life is not all tomahawk jams and shoe endorsements.
Says assistant coach Keith Smart, a former player: "He knows what the players are feeling. He knows what it's like when your contract is up. He knows when a player is trying to stick [remain on the roster]. That gives players confidence in him."
There's also the fact that Lucas still has game -- still can dish the rock, drive the lane, stick the three. And still can talk smack. Ask him if he's the greatest point guard in NBA history, and he'll shoot back, "Are there others?" His talent and tongue lend him a credibility even most ex-players-turned-coaches can't claim. "He's the real thing to his guys," says New York assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, who worked alongside Lucas in San Antonio and Philly.
For all the verbal bouquets, there's no ducking the Cavs' miserable record -- and Lucas doesn't try. The coach holds back little in assessing his team with the media. After Mihm scored 20 points in a 117-88 loss to Golden State in January, tying his career high, Lucas said, "Good for Chris. I didn't think he played very well." Nor does a win guarantee praise: Following a 98-88 thumping of the New York Knicks in December, Lucas referred to his team as "garbage" and added, "Right now, we're thinking we're much better than we are."
Lucas's candor might chafe his players if he were either off the mark or pulling a George Karl -- blasting players in front of the press before talking to them, as the volatile Milwaukee coach often does. But as Mihm points out, whatever Lucas says to reporters, he's already said in the locker room: "We've heard it before anyone else has."
Much as Lucas disdains the phrase "moral victory," there will be far more of them than actual wins in the near future, despite what a recent winning surge might suggest. The team has little leverage in the way of trades, with few marquee players to offer and its salary cap screwed tight. Until next year's draft, Lucas is likely stuck with his current roster.
Paxson says he's comfortable with the team's progress. "You don't like losing, and you'd like to be farther along the curve. But John has the team playing hard and focused."
By next season, however, "playing hard" may not suffice, according to Marty Burns, who covers the NBA for CNNSI.com. Burns says if the team fails to pull out of its seasons-long nosedive, Paxson and Lucas could crash with it. "This is Jim Paxson's hire," Burns says. "This might be the last chance for both of them to get it right."
A portly, bearded man sits about 12 rows behind the Cavs bench. Boston is red hot from three-point land tonight, and the flurry of treys elicits taunts from the man as the Cavs close in on defeat.
"Hey, Lucas! Why don't we only give up two points this time?"
"Hey, Lucas! Shouldn't you guard the three?"
"C'mon! Is this junior high?"
And, finally, in the game's last minute: "Hey, Lucas! You want us to coach for a night? We might win a game!"
In recent years, variations of the refrain have become a constant among Cavs faithful -- or what remains of them. From the strike-shortened 1998-'99 season through last week, the team had gone 104-165. The damage can be measured by the vast swaths of blue -- empty seats -- visible at the Gund. Ignore the bloated attendance figure announced for each game; the abundance of blue is evidence to the contrary.
Lucas feels the pain of fans. Not long ago on his weekly radio show, he listened to a fan criticize the way he rotated players during a recent game -- and actually agreed with the guy. It's hard to imagine L.A.'s Jackson conceding that Ken in Parma has a point. But, then, the Lakers are winning titles and selling out home games.
Lucas offers a humble explanation for going along with the caller, saying, "A lot of people know the game of basketball, so I have to listen when they criticize me or criticize the team."
Beneath his charitable demeanor lies an ambition to rekindle the town's love affair with the Cavs. Since the most obvious way to do that -- winning -- remains at least a year or two away, he'll humor anyone who takes the time to call his show. He'll make appearances on behalf of charities and speak to counseling groups. He's also trying to persuade his players to spend more time in the community and to consider living here in the offseason. He'll set an example by splitting his summer between homes in Houston and Shaker Heights, where he lives with his wife, Debbie, and their two youngest children (another son, John III, plays basketball at Baylor).
Whatever it takes to restore Cleveland's belief in its team.
"I remember coming to Cleveland as a player, seeing Richfield Coliseum full and people coming a long way to watch the games," he says. "This was a great place to play basketball."
For now, the best part of Cavs games may be watching Lucas. He'll trade fist-bumps and high-fives with players when they're running hot. During one win, he chest-bumped Mihm -- a collision that left Lucas sprawled on his back. During another, he executed a flying spin by springing up on the edge of the scorer's table.
Still, for all his exuberance, Lucas retains a sober perspective on his work. Two nights after the Celtics loss, the Cavs trounce Minnesota 114-81 to snap their 12-game losing jag. Lucas high-fives and hugs a couple of his players as he leaves the floor, the first time in almost a month that he walks off smiling.
Ten minutes later, when he emerges from the locker room for his post-game press conference, the smile has left the building. He downplays the result and points out that it is, after all, only one win. When someone asks him if the outcome makes this his most satisfying day as Cavs coach, Lucas doesn't hesitate.
"No. My most satisfying day was the day I got the job."